The experience of grief is part of being human. Everyone encounters the emotion many times in life, though we usually connect it to the loss of a loved one. This was a rough year, and it is ending raggedly. At the end of this year, both of my parents died, not unexpectedly but suddenly. After years of decline, they were both simply gone over a period of just more than a month.
My mother, Jo Starnes, passed peacefully in her sleep at 3:30 am on November 7, 2022. My father, William Curtis Starnes, followed quickly behind on December 11. They were both 95 years of age. After 75 years of marriage – 12 days short of 76 – he simply could not live without her. Some say that he died of a broken heart, and I would not disagree. He lived with congestive heart disease for many years. Eventually, the loss of his beloved wife and life companion was too much.
Welcome, Grief. We have not met like this before.
If you have followed the Elder Journey posts (see below), they were able to leave assisted living just before the pandemic really took hold. They lived at home for the next 2-3 years, then returned to assisted living last summer when mom began sleeping most of the time and dad became to frail to take care of her. This time, their journey ended.
Chutes and Ladders
Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, author of On Death and Dying and On Grief and Grieving, once expressed dismay that her seminal work on the stages of grief was misunderstood. At first people related to the stages as though they were linear, that is, one stage following another. Denial followed by Anger, then Bargaining, Depression, and finally Acceptance. She knew that grief does not unfold and pass that way; instead it is cyclic. Each stage is revisited time and again in no particular order.
One of my favorite board games as a child was Chutes and Ladders. There are a variety of similar games, though that was the version I preferred. The board was laid out with squares that formed a winding path from the bottom left to the upper right. Along the way there were several ladders of different lengths, which allowed the player to climb from one level to another higher one. There were also several chutes that slid from higher to lower levels.
Players would roll a die and move their token along the path according to the number they rolled. If one landed on a square that was the foot of a ladder, they would climb the ladder to a higher level. However, if they landed on a square that was the top of a chute, they would slide down to a lower level. Eventually, as the game would go, players would climb through the path from the bottom to the top, eventually to exit the board on the last square.
Chutes and Ladders is a realistic analogy for grief. It’s not an ever-climbing spiral, but a series of steps, of rises and drops. Each event in every day might bring an epiphany or insight that feels as though I have climbed to a higher, stronger accommodation with grief. Or it might offer a random smell, a memory, a flash of color, a photograph, a song, or any other perception that brings the sinking stomach sense of sliding helplessly down a chute, back to a lower level.
I wonder sometimes if anyone ever actually reaches the end of the cycle, whether Acceptance is ever really achieved. The board game is usually quite long. Players can climb and slide seemingly endlessly. I remember one game in which everyone simply got tired or bored and went on to do something else. Sometimes grief is like that, too. It can be exhausting, which is why I know that it is important to take good care of my health and sense of well-being – to sleep, relax, take hot baths, eat healthy food, be with supportive people.
The Loss of the Dream
In any significant relationship, there is a shared Dream – a way in which experiences of life together moves forward into the future. The reality is that what is grieved is not only the loss of the individual that I will never see again or the situation that I will never experience again. It is the loss of the Dream I had of our unfolding future together that now simply will not happen in the same way.
As an example, I can imagine the death of a friend who has suffered with a long illness. Their passing can reasonably be considered a blessing for them, and I might even celebrate an ending of their suffering. Yet, I will miss being with them: the long walks and heartfelt discussions, the travel I have shared and planned to do again. These are all elements of the shared Dream that will not happen. So, even though I might be glad for them in a way, the fact is that our future plans together are simply no longer possible.
Sometimes the loss or absence of the Dream can be as painful or even more so that the loss of the person. Dreams are continually unfolding and never expected to end. And so the impact of a broken dream can be substantial. However, the roots of the Dream can also be a source of recovery.
A Lasting Relationship
One thing is certain. There is no timetable. Some insist that grief never ends, that all I can do is accommodate it, accept that it will be with me always in some way or another. If that is true – and it likely is – then the best I can do is build a healthy relationship from it or with it. After all, I do not want to forget the experience of being with who or what was lost. Yet, the memory is at the very root of grief.
I imagine Grief as a living entity that will be with me for the rest of my life. It can comfort me or it can torment me. Which would I choose, if I had a choice?
What kind of relationship would I want with the sadness of the loss of a parent, partner, sibling, or child? Where does that missing friendship belong in the future I am creating for myself? How might that failed career inform my future plans and decisions? How do I want to recover from the lost dream? How can Grief guide me into a new and expansive future?
I know that what happened, that caused the grief I feel, cannot be changed. It happened and cannot be erased. Yet, I can manage how I deal with it.
Just more than a week after the passing of the last of my parents, I recognize that I am vacillating between denial and sadness. I have also met this new version of Grief and am certain that I will forge a healing relationship with it. It’s just a matter of time.
Follow the story from the beginning. Previous posts:
Elder Parents: The Journey Begins
Elder Parents Journey: Making Plans
Elder Parents Journey: Heart of the House
Elder Parents Journey: Meeting House
Elder Parents Journey: Spirit of the Land
Elder Parents Journey: Tender Moments
Elder Parents Journey: Returning Home